First Contractor Prosecution Ends in Guilty Plea

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 24 2008 10:13 AM

First Contractor Prosecution Ends in Guilty Plea

Via the Washington Post  and the military's press shop in Baghdad , I learned this morning that the first military prosecution of a civilian contractor in Iraq has ended in a guilty plea. According to today's story:

Also Monday, the U.S. military announced that a Canadian man working as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq was sentenced to five months of confinement after pleading guilty in the stabbing of a colleague in February.

The contractor, Alaa "Alex" Mohammad Ali, was the first civilian prosecuted since a 2006 amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice allowed the military to court-martial civilian contractors.

According to the military, Ali stabbed another contractor with a knife at a military facility on Feb. 23 near Hit, in western Iraq. A judge dropped the most serious charge filed against him, aggravated assault, after Ali agreed to plead guilty to obtaining a knife without permission, disposing of the weapon after the assault and lying to military investigators.

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The prosecution marked the first time that the military's justice system was used to prosecute a civilian contractor on the battlefield since at least 1968. The change came about because of a 2006 amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, inserted at the last minute by Sen. Lindsay Graham, which expanded the UCMJ's jurisdiction to cover civilians during "contingency operations" (like Iraq and Afghanistan) in addition to times of declared war.

The change generated a great deal of legal commentary and raised many thorny legal questions as to whether it was constitutional to apply military law to civilians. The best precedent on the matter is the Supreme Court's decision in Reid vs. Covert , in which the court strongly hinted in a footnote that it would bless such prosecutions in an area of active hostility. Add that to the Supreme Court's favorable view of military justice, as seen in the recent Guantanamo cases, and it's likely that this conviction would have been affirmed.

But, of course, this case ended in a plea bargain, so we likely won't get the chance to see any of those questions resolved on appeal. I predict that the military will continue to use its UCMJ authority to prosecute contractors but only in those rare cases where both the Justice Department and local authorities refuse to act.

Phillip Carter is an Iraq veteran who now directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.

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